With football season officially over in Happy Valley, Penn State basketball will look to capture the attention of the Nittany Lion faithful when it heads to Michigan to take on the Wolverines at 4 P.M. today on the Big Ten Network.
There are no two ways about it, this is a huge game for Penn State. At 10-3, Michigan is a decent basketball team, but it pales in comparison to the four ranked teams Penn State will face in its next five games: No. 11 Purdue, No. 19 Michigan State, No. 25 Illinois No. 2 Ohio State and then Purdue again. If the Lions are going to get a win any time soon, this will be their best chance.
Ken Pomeroy has Michigan rated No. 69. The Wolverines three losses have come at the hands of Syracuse, UTEP and Purdue in a blowout last time out. They own two top-100 wins against No. 46 Clemson and No. 90 Oakland.
A win would move Penn State to 2-0 in Big Ten play and 9-4 overall. Though the Lions will still have to make some hay in the coming weeks if they're going to find their way onto the NCAA Tournament bubble, it would be a very nice start to league play. At the least, it would put the team in position to pull out an NIT bid rather than fall into the hopeless abyss it appeared to be heading toward following a home loss to Maine right before Christmas.
Keys to the game after the jump
When Penn State Has The Ball...
- Penn State needs to maintain a manageable pace today. With a thin bench, the Lions can't afford to get in a run-and-gun game with the Michigan or they'll be too worn down by the second half. The Wolverines like to get out in transition, so the Lions would be wise to run some clock when they have the ball and not let Michigan dictate the rhythm of the game.
- The "other guys" need to be looking for shots. Beyond Talor Battle, David Jackson and Jeff Brooks, the rest of the team only registered six attempts from the field in the win over Indiana on Monday. Deference to the big three scorers is fine, especially when they're shooting over 50%, but supplementary scoring never hurt anyone, and if the deeper options on the team took and knocked down a few more shots, Penn State would be a lot better off.
- It'd be nice to see the guards work the offensive glass in this one. If there are any long bounces, the Michigan guards will be looking to grab them and go. If Battle, Tim Frazier, Cammeron Woodyard and whatever other guards see time for the Lions today can track down a couple balls they'll have a much better time controlling the pace.
- Feed the big fellas early and often. Brooks and Jackson both got into double figures in the first half against Indiana and that really helped Penn State stake itself to a lead. Getting the pair shots early again will bode well for the rest of the game.
When Michigan Has The Ball...
- Play aggressive defense, but not too aggressive. This goes especially for Brooks and Jackson. Both managed to stay on the floor and out of foul trouble against Indiana and unsurprisingly had big impacts at the other end.
- Penn State needs to make sure this isn't the game that Michigan learns how to shoot from deep. John Beilein coached teams love to make their living on the perimeter, but Michigan is only shooting 33.5% from 3-point land. If the Lions hold the Wolverines to that number, they'll be OK. If they let them start bombing away for nine or 10 treys, it's going to be a rough night.
- Keep up the good interior defense. Darius Morris and Tim Hardaway Jr. are Michigan's leading scorer's and both are guards that don't shoot the deep ball particularly well. If Penn State can keep those two out of the lane and force them to play on the perimeter a little bit more, it'll be to their advantage.
Penn State has had success against Michigan recently, even with now departed names like DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris doing a lot of the heavy lifting. These Wolverines are younger and match up well with Penn State at the moment, so if the Lions play to their strengths, they'll probably look OK today. Long term, Michigan will probably be a lot tougher nut to crack, but right now, the Wolverines are on Penn State's level. If the Lions hope to get anywhere in March, these are the kind of teams they have to beat.